Former Foreign Office diplomat Dame Nicola Brewer was from 2009 until last year the British High Commissioner to South Africa. Before that, she was the first chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. This week, she took over as the new vice-provost (international) at University College London.
Where and when were you born?
Taplow, Buckinghamshire, on 14 November 1957. But my family come from Wales.
How has this shaped you?
We moved around the UK a lot while I was growing up. Repeated eye surgery when I was young and watching my mother refuse to be defined by having multiple sclerosis probably shaped me more than any place, except Northern Ireland – I was at secondary school in Belfast during the Troubles. My Welsh heritage resurfaced when it came to choosing names for our two children.
Have you always fancied working at a university or is this a complete career departure?
Yes and no. When I was doing my PhD at the University of Leeds, I aspired to become an academic. But I was challenged to apply for the Foreign Office and intrigued by how politicians use language (my research field). [Later], international development showed me just how transformative education is for societies as well as individuals.
What skills can you bring from being a diplomat to your vice-provost position?
An understanding of the geopolitical forces shaping our world and the challenges we face. The skill, I hope, to craft genuine partnerships to tackle those challenges together. Pleasure in being a member of a team that is more than the sum of its parts and appreciates diversity. A little teaching experience. And a love of learning and admiration for scholarship.
How does South Africa’s higher education system compare with the UK’s?
Where to start? To pick a few differences – university comes after 12 years in school there, in a system still struggling with the legacy of apartheid, rather than the 13 in the UK system after centuries of democracy. And one similarity – HE has the potential to transform our economies and societies for the better.
Have mergers in South African universities since apartheid helped to improve racial equality there?
Not nearly enough yet, but I got to meet several truly inspiring vice-chancellors striving to do just that.
What is the perception of the UK’s position in global higher education in other countries?
Highly positive. As a British ambassador working to communicate overseas what makes modern Britain great, [I know that] our higher education sector is a treasure trove of brilliant stories with local and global resonance.
UCL calls itself ‘London’s Global University’. Where does UCL sit in the global pantheon of universities?
Very high, but it’s not as well-known as it deserves to be.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Take yourself lightly; don’t turn everything into “learning Japanese”, as a coach once told me.
Who have you always admired?
Madiba – Nelson Mandela – for remaining “the captain of [his] soul” through years in prison, and for steering South Africa to democracy.
In the past 10 years, what has changed most in higher education?
Particularly, but not only in the UK, the funding of higher education and the cost borne by students; and the balance between seeing higher education as a public and a private good seems to have shifted. For the better: multidisciplinary research and teaching, and wider access.
What keeps you awake at night?
Making lists of everything I want to do tomorrow before breakfast.
As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
Be a showjumper like Marion Coakes.
What do you do for fun?
Go for long walks with my husband and other good friends. And read modern English fiction: my father gives me the six novels on the Man Booker shortlist for my birthday every year.
If you could suddenly speak one foreign language, what would it be?
Mandarin. I have working-level French and Spanish, and a smattering of German, Hindi and Zulu – but only enough to admire people who are truly bilingual or multilingual.
What’s your biggest regret?
I don’t spend much time regretting what’s past. I do wish I’d made an effort to get my thesis published, but I was working full-time by then.
What’s an undergraduate degree worth?
If it has taught you about a subject you love, and/or how to think critically, then its value is unquantifiable, like all the best things in life. The most important thing to learn is to enjoy learning and to value wisdom.
To what, or whom, do you feel most allegiance?
My family. And social justice.